TV Review: Wolf Hall Series 1 Episode 6: ‘Master of Phantoms’

Wolf Hall’s final episode shows how it has excelled at bringing complex historical characters to life, says

This review contains spoilers

★★★★★

Ep6

After six weeks of court intrigue, a divorce, a marriage, a birth, and several deaths, Wolf Hall came to an end this week. The narrative was brought full circle, as the support that had gathered around Anne Boleyn quickly receded, leading inevitably to her doom. The fast pace of the episode reflected that of Anne’s trial and execution.

I think what was really chilling about this episode – and about the whole series in general – was how genuinely frightening Anne’s downfall was. The antipathy with which Nicholas Carew responds to Cromwell’s question of “What will happen to Anne Boleyn?” with “I don’t know… convent?” shows how disposable women – even queens – actually were. Cromwell might have accused Norris of seeing women as objects later in the episode, but really one could make that claim of the whole Tudor court. I was surprised that Jane Seymour didn’t appear in this episode – it seemed the obvious way to bring Anne’s story to an end was to heavily imply Jane’s ascendancy – though we didn’t really need to see her to grasp the pervasive sense that Anne was on the way out.

The question of whether or not Anne was actually guilty of the charges laid against her is never answered in this episode either way, and I think this may have been for the best. It is probable that even at the time it was not completely clear. As Cromwell himself states, it doesn’t really matter whether the men he condemned were guilty as charged, only that they were guilty of something – to him, they would always be the men from the Wolsey play. The effect of this what-goes-around-comes-around story is to give the sense that the series is coming to a cyclical close. Although Cromwell clearly isn’t entirely happy with having to bring Anne down, he makes sure that she takes some of his enemies with her.

In the end, then, Cromwell wins out. He fulfils Henry’s desires by getting rid of Anne, but in a way that does not require anything more than suggestion. He certainly does not torture Mark Smeaton (as he has been historically accused). Anne might think she has created Cromwell but, as Norfolk reminds her, Cromwell has also created her – though she is “sorry first, and sorry more” as a result. Thus, ultimately Cromwell is forced to cash in on the intricate power structure he has created around him in order to ‘unmake’ the Queen. He may not have enjoyed doing it, but in performing this task he has saved his own position: in the final moments we see Cromwell being embraced by an emphatically delighted king, a bachelor once again.

Now that the series is over, it’s worth expressing some thoughts on the overall portrayal of certain characters. I feel it’s worth saying that I have really enjoyed Damien Lewis’s Henry VIII, mostly because it has been far from the usual caricature we might see of the king. Making Cromwell the centre of the show has not diverted from Henry’s awesome power and intellect. Nor has he been a tyrant. There have been laughable moments – the king reclining on a couch wistfully bemoaning his belief that Anne “has committed adultery with a hundred men” being one of them – but it is the last scene of this episode that really vindicates the decision to cast Lewis. The almost child-like, maniacal joy in Henry’s eyes as he embraces Cromwell, presumably just hours after the execution of his second wife and queen, really tells us everything we need to know about the Henry VIII in this series. He is a nuanced version of a familiar character: he seems easily swayed by the wills of those around him, though will not allow anyone in his service to back down from their duties; he is obsessed with royal precedent and duty, though will make the rules up as he goes along; but ultimately he will always get his way. Just one day later, he was officially betrothed to Jane Seymour.

Cromwell’s presentation has been equally as interesting, and fantastically played by Mark Rylance. Historically, it has raised a few eyebrows: over the course of the series Cromwell has been distanced as far from any of his supposedly more infamous actions as it has been possible. Ultimately, I think that this show has been a job well done in bringing to life not just a complex historical period but also a deeply intriguing yet controversial figure in Thomas Cromwell. For that, it deserves full praise.

Scene of the week: There were a lot of great ones this week. I am, however, going to have to go for the final scene because I think it not only sums up this entire series, but it also leaves us hanging for another series (yes, the BBC is allegedly already planning to bring Mantel’s yet-to-be-released final novel to the screen in the future). I also think it showed off the strengths of Lewis and Rylance in their strong (yet awkward, for Cromwell at least) partnership as these two incredibly different men. It was a deeply chilling scene.

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